Book Review | Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

How do we rebuild a life of meaning in the wake of senseless tragedy? 12-year-old Eddie is on a cross-country flight from New York to LA when the plane falls out of the sky. He’s the only survivor. His parents and older brother were also on the flight, and suddenly Eddie finds himself in an earth-shattering new reality.

Suddenly, the boy who was Eddie no longer exists, and he assumes the identity Edward.

‘There are grown-ups, children, and then you. You don’t feel like a kid anymore, right?” Edward nods. “But you won’t be an adult for years. You’re something else, and we need to figure out what you are, so we can figure out how to help you.’

Hailed as a miracle, Edward finds himself at the centre of a media frenzy, one that is carefully shielded from him by his childless Aunt and Uncle, who are now his guardians. The loss of his parents is devastating, but even more painful is the loss of his brother, Jordan. Despite being a few years apart in age, the two shared a powerful bond that endures even beyond life. There’s a particularly poignant scene when the family’s belongings arrive at his Aunt and Uncle’s house in New Jersey, and from that point on Edward will only wear Jordan’s clothes, despite them being far too big for him. In Edward, Napolitano has depicted a realistic, empathetic teenage protagonist, exploring his unimaginable grief in a way that feels true and sensitive rather than clichéd.

Navigating a new reality is almost impossible for Edward over the first few years after the crash. He’s always been home-schooled, and now he’s attending public school. He’s always shared a bunkbed with Jordan in the family’s NYC home, now he lies awake on the bedroom floor of the girl next door, Shay. His proximity to and bond with Shay is the only thing that keeps him going, desperate to escape from the well-meaning adults who are also grieving in their own right.

‘He feels the plane seatbelt around his waist. His hands are cold, like they were when he pressed his palm against the wet plane window. He remembers pressing the window, then pulling his hand away. Edward feels the warmth of his brother’s body next to his. It doesn’t feel like a memory. He feels the tightness of the airplane seatbelt around his waist as he sits on the folding chair. Edward can feel the heartbeats of the mothers, fathers, siblings, spouses, cousins, friends and children upstairs. His body syncs up with their sadness.’

While Edward is protected from the intense scrutiny after the accident, his uncle John is intensely investigating what happened. One day, Shay and Edward find padlocked duffle bags in the garage. Guessing the entry passcode – the number of the flight – they open them to find hundreds upon hundreds of letters written to Edward, the ‘miracle boy’, looking for him to fulfil ambitions and dreams that their loved ones on the plane were prevented from doing. In replying to these letters, Edward is able to assuage some of his survivor’s guilt and find a way to rebuild his life.

The novel has two concurrent narratives running alongside each other, the first a minute-by-minute account of what happens on the flight that fateful day, and another of Edward coming to terms with his new life over the course of the years to come. This is a clever structure that alternates the pace and sustains our interest. Through the narrative of the flight, we get an insight into some of the other passengers, all leading very different lives but bound together by that moment in time. Napolitano writes vivid characters that come to life, even when you only have a small insight into their lives. It makes the tragedy of the crash even more astute, as the reader is invested in the life not only of our protagonist but also the lives of those who were also on that journey with him.

This novel is moving but unsentimental, Napolitano’s writing measured and clear-eyed at all times. While I think this is a conscious stylistic choice, and one that is well-accomplished, it kept me at a distance somewhat, preventing me from feeling too emotionally engaged in the story. That said, her exploration of a teenage psyche undergoing the most unimaginable trauma is commendable, and handled with deftness and sensitivity.

 

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